Monday, April 21st, 1902
St. Pierre, Martinique
All day there was a distant rumbling coming from Mount Pelée. Most people had shrugged it off as thunder, but there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. On a cocoa plantation just north of Saint-Pierre, Emilie Dujon had heard it too but thought nothing more of it. Storms in the West Indies came and left quite suddenly. The needle on the barometer was the only way to tell when trouble was approaching. But on this particular day the needle did not quiver. It remained steady at 760 millimeters, indicating no gathering storm. Anyway, Emilie had more important things to think about. She was going to the theater that evening with Lucien Monplaisir, her fiancé of two months, and she was occupied with looking resplendent. Her elderly nanny, Da Rosette, had ironed her best muslin dress and laid out her grandmother’s pearl necklace, and then she had coiffed her long brown hair in an elegant chignon and hugged her when she saw the results. "Just like your Grandmother Loulou," said the elderly woman. "You have her eyes and her high cheekbones." Emilie beamed when she saw her reflection in the mirror of her mahogany dressing table. Lucien will be so happy when he sees me, she thought. Tonight will be perfect.
Now, as she sat in the theater stiff as a statue, Emilie Dujon’s neck burned with anger. Every muscle in her body was rigid with tension and her stomach churned. She no longer cared about the play or about Lucien Monplaisir. When the curtain fell, she rose from her seat and, without so much as a goodbye, she made her way down the grand staircase and out to the waiting horse carriages along the Rue Victor Hugo. She heard Lucien calling her name several times but she didn’t look back. As far as she was concerned she was through with him.
A young woman of eighteen with wide amber eyes and a grave but lovely face that belied her shrewd intellect, Emilie Dujon was the daughter of a cocoa planter from the parish of Saint-Philomène just north of Saint-Pierre. The descendants of the first French settlers of Martinique, the Dujon family had once been wealthy, but years of hurricanes, labor strikes, and pestilence had brought the plantation to near bankruptcy. But Emilie still had her pride. That was not for sale at any price.
As she darted through the crowd she chided herself for not leaving during intermission when she had the chance. She blamed her own ingrained sense of propriety, honed after years of studying at the convent school of St. Joseph de Cluny, where virtues like piety, modesty, devotion, and self-sacrifice were stressed. But nowhere did it say she had to put up with a fiancé who flirted shamelessly with her best friend. Nowhere did it say she had to keep mum while he bought her a glass of champagne—Veuve Clicquot, no less!—and nowhere did it say she shouldn’t slap him on the face. (Only the fiercest self-discipline had held her back.) According to Sister Marie, a religious woman’s highest calling was to be a model of virtue and modesty. Instead, she had spent the entire second act thinking the most impious thoughts. (It shamed her to think of them now; one of them involved throwing her champagne in his face.) Those dear, sweet Sisters! How she strove to emulate them! How she strove to be a model of virtue! How did she manage to fail so miserably?
It wasn’t as if she didn’t have misgivings about marrying Lucien. She’d had plenty. After all, he was the spoiled, arrogant, entitled son of a wealthy sugar planter. As rich as Croesus, her father liked to say. And in his own way Lucien strove to improve, even if by “improve” he meant becoming “richer” or “more powerful”. Now she realized how foolish and naïve she had been. Virtues like humility, modesty, and gallantry did not come in a bottle. Men who lacked such virtues must acquire them through rigorous self-examination and concerted effort. Lucien lacked neither the desire nor the inclination for either. When the heel of Emilie’s shoe caught in the cobblestones, she uttered a loud oath before yanking it free and clambering inside the carriage.
Lucien opened the door and stared at her. “What the devil got into you?”
Emilie regarded him through smoldering eyes. “You are a brute, a savage. You are Jack the Ripper and Dracula all rolled into one!”
Lucien shrugged. “Is it my fault you ran off like a crazed mongoose? Perhaps if you behaved with more decorum you wouldn’t have broken your shoe.”
Her eyes smoldered. “You know very well why I’m angry.”
Lucien’s face turned red. “I already told you she means nothing to me. Stop behaving like a petulant schoolgirl.”
“I’m petulant?” she said. “You couldn’t take your eyes off her the whole evening.”
“We were only having a simple conversation.”
“A simple conversation that lasted the entire intermission.”
“To my recollection we spoke for about five minutes,” he said, fixing his cold grey eyes on her. “Don’t I deserve better thanks for taking you out to the theater?” His mouth curled into a smile and he eased closer to her so that their faces were only inches apart. Emilie felt a cold shiver up her spine.
“Well?” he said, edging closer. “Is this the way to treat your future husband?”
By now he had his hand around her shoulders. Emilie’s heart raced. She thought about those lessons on virtue and modesty. She recalled Sister Marie’s stern lectures on how women should be a civilizing force in society. Mustering up all her strength she pushed Lucien away.
“Why must you always be so brutish and coarse? You didn’t have to buy her a glass of champagne.”
“I did so because she’s your friend,” he said with annoyance. “And she’s a lovely girl. Besides, we were only having a civil conversation…alright, even if I was acting a bit flirtatious, I only did so as a favor to you. I didn’t want her to feel left out. Why do you have to be so damned emotional? We were having a nice evening. Don’t go spoiling it now.”
As the carriage rolled down the street, an uncomfortable silence followed during which time Lucien lit a cigarette and began drumming his fingers on the windowsill, a habit that irritated her almost as much as his flirting. There was no doubt Lucien was peculiar. That was one of the first things she noticed about him. Ever since they met at the governor's ball four months earlier, Lucien Monplaisir’s odd behavior had been a source of contention. Hundreds of years of wealth and privilege had bred in him an inborn arrogance that he wore like a cloak. He was disdainful of anyone he deemed inferior. The son of a wealthy sugar planter, he carried himself like a true West Indian aristocrat, a planter prince who held court with all the pomp and circumstance of a feudal lord. At the time, Emilie had no desire to dance with the dark-haired, brooding young man, but her sister, Mérotte, had pushed her into it since Lucien was a distant cousin of her husband’s. He came from one of the richest and most respected families in Martinique. As rich as Croesus, her father liked to say. Emilie was not particularly interested in Lucien; she found him too stiff and formal for her taste, but he pursued her with a passion that bordered on obsession. Now as she sat next to him in the carriage smelling his cigarette smoke, hearing the coarse way he spoke, she wondered how she had been so foolish.
“You know what your problem is,” he said at last. “You’re just jealous.”
Emilie’s eyes flared. “Jealous? My problem is I’m too tolerant of your wandering eye. I should have left before the second act.” As she said this she swept a pile of his ashes off her muslin gown.
That’s when she saw it.
In the distance, the mountain appeared to be glowing. It almost looked as if the sky was on fire. From the top of Mount Pelée flashes of light resembling artillery fire lit up the night sky. Black smoke rose from the crater and curled upwards like a malevolent genie. Emilie sucked in her breath and stared at it, mesmerized. Beside her, even Lucien looked impressed. As the carriage trundled down the cobblestoned Rue Victor Hugo she kept her eyes fixed on the mushrooming black clouds that billowed out from the summit and then spread leeward across the city where they began to rain ash and cinders.
Boom! An explosion like cannon-fire rocked the carriage. It was followed by a loud rumbling noise and tremors that shook the earth. The horses reared and the elderly West Indian driver struggled to control them. “Ho! Ho!” he cried, as he pulled on the reins. Emilie gasped and felt her heart pounding in her chest. Is the world coming to an end? She feared the ground would split open beneath them and swallow them up. Even Lucien for all his bravado looked frightened. She gripped the arm rest as the horses whinnied and balked. Outside, the gas lamps swayed and roof tiles smashed to the ground as people began rushing out of their houses in a frenzy.
Lucien banged on the driver’s seat and told him to stop in that condescending tone she hated so much. She despised the way he ordered his servants around, flaunting his wealth and position, even during a crisis such as this. It sickened her.
By now the streets erupted into chaos. People ran out of their homes and gathered in the Place Bertin, while others headed toward the cathedral, crossing themselves and uttering prayers out loud. Some were visibly crying. Oh God, please don’t let me die together with Lucien. She had never seen the normally carefree Pierrotins in such a state of panic. Shouts rang out from balconies overhead and shutters flew open as curious residents peered out into the darkness. A few horses broke free of their reins and began galloping down the street, chased by their furious owners.
At last, the carriage ground to a halt. Alone in the darkness, she could hear her heart beating furiously as sweat dripped down the sides of her temples. Her muslin dress was soaked with sweat and her hair clung to the back of her neck. She glanced over at Lucien, but he was staring at the smoldering volcano with a mixture of awe and curiosity. Now it made sense why for the past several weeks, snakes, rodents, and yellow ants had been abandoning the mountains in droves, heading to lower ground. Emilie also recalled reading somewhere that eyewitnesses had reported seeing clouds of steam and smoke rising from the upper river of the Rivière Blanche. Most people had shrugged it off as meaningless.
Feeling suddenly claustrophobic, Emilie pushed open the carriage door and scrambled outside, followed by Lucien. Together they stood by the side of the road watching the scene unfold before them like spectators to a disaster. As ash rained down, people scattered in every direction screaming and shouting while the ground shook.
“Come on, I’ve seen enough, let’s get out of here,” said Lucien.
The driver cracked his whip and the horses trotted across the stone bridge that crossed the Rivière Roxelane, and then proceeded north for several miles along the coast before turning west onto a dirt road bounded by coconut palms and clumps of bamboo that led to the tiny hamlet of Saint-Philomène where the Dujon plantation was located. As they climbed the western slopes of Mount Pelée, an ominous smell began to fill the air. It was not a burning kind of smell, like the occasional fumes that drifted down from the Guérin Sugar Factory across the savannah, but a different kind of smell, like rotten eggs. Emilie pressed her handkerchief to her nose and mouth, but Lucien didn’t seem to care. He seemed oblivious.
He slipped his arm over her shoulders but she stiffened at his touch. As the carriage made its way down the dirt road an uncomfortable silence followed during which time Emilie’s mind began to race. Escape. That was her only solution. She had to find a way to break off her engagement without causing a scandal. But it would not be easy. No young woman of her social class had ever broken an engagement and survived the resulting gossip and slander. The scandal would crush her parents and brand her a social outcast. Just thinking about it gave her chills. Her mind began to race as she searched for solutions, but it seemed hopeless. As she gazed up at the summit of Mount Pelée, an ominous film of clouds blotted out the moon, reducing her world to utter darkness.